When working through the college search with your college-bound teen, it is helpful to know what type of college search you are doing. This can help to identify the tools and resources that will be most beneficial. I have identified four types of college search goals and have provided recommendations on resources for each:
Maximum Need-Based Aid – Your student might not have the grades, test scores, activity resume, etc. to qualify for substantial merit aid (it is always worth looking into anyway), but you do not have the funds readily available to pay for college. You don’t have enough saved and you don’t make enough to use cash flow. You may qualify for financial aid. Start with the FAFSA4caster to estimate what your expected family contribution for college will be. Then run Net Price Calculators at schools of interest to see what they say your expected family contribution will be. You need to find schools that are very generous with meeting a student’s financial need. My post, Minimize Your Out-of-Pocket College Cost – Part 2, lists schools that pledge to meet 100% of need. A great way to find out how much need-based aid a school gives out is to use CollegeData.com. Go to the College Match function and you have two options. You can use the Match by Preferences grid to search for schools that offer a high percentage of need-based aid by using the Financial Friendliness search criteria section. The other option is to search for a school by name. Either way, when you get to the school’s profile page, check out the Money Matters section to see how much need-based aid the school gives.
Maximum Merit Aid – Your child is smart, talented, is a leader, is exceptionally enterprising or maybe a combination of some or all of these. You know that many colleges would be lucky to have such an exceptional student. Schools should pay you to get your student instead of the other way around! You want to get the best deal possible from the schools that want your student the most. This means you need to find great merit scholarships. If your student has very high ACT/SAT scores and a high GPA; if your student is expected to be a national merit finalist or semi-finalist; if your student is on track to be valedictorian or salutatorian; if your student has a great leadership and/or community service background – any of these, or a combination, can lead to full-ride and full-tuition scholarships. You should check out my Full Scholarship List. It is the most comprehensive listing of full-ride and full-tuition scholarships offered directly by colleges that is available on the web today. If you don’t think your student is quite qualified for these types of scholarships (it’s worth trying for them anyway) you should check out MeritAid.com to find schools that offer great merit scholarships. Many schools offer a substantial tuition discount to the top portion of their applicant pool. If you already have schools in mind, go to their websites and check out their merit scholarship offers. Another option is to go to CollegeData.com as I described above under Maximum Need-Based Aid. The Money Matters section lists the percentage of students who receive merit-based aid and the average amount.
Maximum School Opportunity – You don’t really care how much a school costs. You have the funds available and your student wants to attend the best school he or she can get into. The thing you may want to pay most attention to is acceptance rates. See my post, Top Students and the College Choice Process Paradox for some acceptance rates for 2013 applicants. Also, I wrote a post comparing US News school rankings against their acceptance rates, New US News College Rankings Come Out Soon – Should You Care? The basic idea in both posts is that the more prestigious the school is, the more applicants it receives and the harder it is to get into. Your student will want to distinguish himself/herself from other applicants to maximize admission chances. A good resource is the book, B+ Grades, A+ College Application. I reviewed this book in a prior post.
Lowest Sticker Price – You are not looking for a school with high prestige. You are looking to start with the schools that cost the least and maybe even decrease the cost further through merit aid and/or need-based aid. State schools and community colleges could be your best options. I wrote a post about community colleges for a local resource, When and Why to Consider Community Colleges. If you are considering in-state four-year public colleges, your state’s flagship campus is usually the most expensive. The smaller and less popular campuses tend to be priced lower.
Did you identify with one of these college search types? Maybe you are a combination. In the end, most parents are looking to balance quality of education against cost to come up with the best possible value for their child, but everyone’s definition of “value” is a little different.